To British and American ears, debt-free higher education ranks alongside Olympic amateurism, free love and silent libraries as emblems of a bygone, pre-1980s era.
But how sorry should we be for the demise of any of these? To the spectator, the sums being earned by the Rio Olympians will have had no bearing on the spectacle. And if professionalism allows those from less affluent backgrounds to compete, then all the better.
Free love is discussed in our cover feature this week. But while the demise of the campus sexual revolution is lamented by Lincoln Allison, his rose-tinted view of the past is questioned by a female contemporary, Susan Bassnett. “Pill or no Pill, it’s not exactly liberation to end up in bed with someone you don’t fancy,” she writes.
In university libraries, enforced silence was certainly appreciated by the solitary aspiring scholar. But if the modern workplace is all about teamwork, why shouldn’t students be permitted to study communally?
As our second feature this week makes clear, some university librarians have even admitted defeat over the “no food and drink” rule so resented (and flouted) by previous generations of students. Such concessions, of course, reflect the power conferred on students by the high fees that they now pay.
Defenders of high fees say that they are the only way to provide high-quality higher education to large numbers of people. They point out that in 1970, only about 8 per cent of people went to university, compared with upwards of 45 per cent in recent years.
No one would want to go back to such low levels of participation. But is the choice between debt and elitism really as stark as all that? US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton appears to think not. As one of our news stories this week explains, she has responded to escalating student debt levels by pledging to introduce debt-free higher education at public universities, albeit with the caveat that it would apply only to in-state students whose family income is below $125,000 (£95,000): about 80 per cent of the population.
Whether Congress would ever release the estimated $500 billion the plan would cost is a big question, but the fact that Clinton has adopted the pledge at all demonstrates that, even in the low-tax Anglo-American context, debt-free higher education may not be as politically outlandish as many assume. The idea, of course, is also favoured by current Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn – if not his party.
The risk, as our news story on the Clinton plan points out, is that public underwriting may only push up fees further. A case in point is the way UK universities shocked the coalition government by rushing up to the £9,000 fee cap as soon as it was introduced in 2012, rightly confident that the income-contingent loans on offer would make the fee palatable to students. Some observers worry that this year’s introduction of £10,000 loans could see the cost of master’s degrees rise sharply, too – although our analysis last week of 2016-17 fees suggested that the threat has not yet fully materialised.
Free education, like free love, does not come without costs. If a return to 1970s levels of student debt were ever to be achievable, a certain amount of self-restraint and abstinence would surely be necessary on universities’ part. How palatable that would be in an era of global competitiveness is open to question.